Never an unhappy day for D-Day tail gunner
The man named after Christmas always seemed happy and was never rattled by jabs thrown his way by old age.
Maybe that was just who Noel Shanks was, or maybe it was because he long ago defied death when the odds were against him and knew each day was gravy after that.
Shanks flew in a Lancaster bomber in the Second World War, where the survival rate for aircrews was about 50 per cent, and for his position — tail gunner — considerably less than that.
But he lived to tell of his experiences, often to Burlington schoolchildren on Remembrance Day.
That included what he had thought was a routine “op” (operation) that began in the darkness on the morning of June 6, 1944.
That was when his Lanc soared over the English Channel and the French coast, part of the historic D-Day invasion to help free Europe from the Nazis.
Noel Charles Shanks lived to be 94 years old, before time finally took him last Saturday night.
He was born Christmas Day 1922, in Sharbot Lake, north of Kingston.
He had three sisters, and also three brothers who served in the war.
“Not one of us got a scratch,” said Shanks, flashing his broad smile in an interview with The Spectator three years ago for a story marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
His brothers have passed away; two of his sisters, Rose and Adah, are still alive.
Shanks enlisted at 18. He asked to be a pilot, but was told they needed tail gunners. “And I said, ‘OK.’” He volunteered mostly for the adventure. The risks were well known, but he believed he would survive.
He didn’t join out of a sense of duty — or at least that thought didn’t occur to him at that age. But he took pride in the notion as the years passed.
“When the war comes along, everyone wants to join the fight,” he said. “I had a good time serving.”
He figured he fired about 50,000 rounds of ammunition on 29 missions, including one exchange with a Messerschmitt where he unloaded 400 rounds.
Once he came close to bailing from the Lancaster, grabbing his parachute when an engine caught fire.
“I didn’t have to jump. But I had the door open.”
He said a good crew, and luck, kept him safe.
Just over a year after D-Day, Shanks’ crew prepared to head to the Far East, for the final offensive against Japan.
But in August 1945, they heard that two bombers had put an end to that theatre of the war, with the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Shanks liked to quip that the only thing that scared him during the war was getting roped-in to marriage overseas as young man.
In 1952, he married Eileen, whom he had met on a blind date while golfing in Montreal.
“It was the perfect marriage. It really was. To have the perfect marriage you have to have a little money in the bank, and never say no.”
Perhaps it was because they married a bit later in life, he said, but they never had children.
Eileen died in 2012 after he had cared for her several years when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
They lived in Montreal, Toronto, Florida and for a time in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, while Shanks worked in administration for Air Canada when the company had an office there.
His last post was Hillfair Place, a quiet court in Burlington, which he called one of the best cities to live in in Canada.
He had back problems and a hearing impairment — that started with the deafening roar of the Lancaster — but he kept busy woodworking, reading two newspapers a day, and watching the occasional old movie.
“I never had an unhappy day in my life,” he said. “I don’t let things bother me.”
When asked how he felt about death, he said: “It’s coming.” And then he laughed.
In December, he moved to a retirement home. On April 27, he was admitted to Joe Brant Hospital. He died early in the evening on May 6, two days before the 72nd anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day.
He will be buried this summer at Sharbot Lake, joining Eileen.
In his final years, you could see Noel Shanks emerging from his home to hoist a small Canadian flag in the morning light.
Later, at sundown, he would take the flag back inside, putting the colours to bed before he slept the carefree sleep of a life well-lived and missions accomplished.
Noel Shanks, 94, was a Lancaster tail gunner.